Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Xizhimen "Catacombs"

A few days ago, Z went on a BISS field trip (yes, the kids don't really attend BISS any more, but we're finding that once you go to BISS, you actually never leave BISS), so Julie and I had a rare opportunity for a girls' day out. On the list, of course, shopping and eating!

First stop, Xizhimen. When we dropped Z off at BISS and mentioned our plan to the receptionist, she was surprised that our excursion would include this area of Beijing. "Oh," she said, "foreigners don't usually know about that place for shopping." This "place," as she called it, is very elusive. Why? Because it is mostly underground and seemingly invisible to the untrained eye.

You see, most of the good markets in Beijing are not apparent to the ex pat community. Off the beaten track, or hidden in buildings whose signs are only in Chinese. (I know you're thinking, shouldn't all the signs be in Chinese? Actually, the markets that cater to waiguoren are well-marked in English.) The markets geared toward native Chinese residents are not. (Xizhimen is perhaps the best at keeping the good prices for Beijingren alone.)

The area I'm referring to as Xizhimen is not one actual place, but rather the name of an area surrounding a subway stop, and is denoted by the presence of three distinct buildings, as you can see. All of the great shopping is just a few blocks away, closer to the zoo. There are a few plastic structures that protrude from the ground. Following the stairway down within this structure, and entering through the green burlap doors, takes you to what I would call "Willy Wonka's Wonderland of Bargains." Stall after stall of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and accessories, at unbeatable prices...and not a single foreigner.

After we were finished underground, we ventured back to my infamous "bu liao" place. While above ground, this four-story building is also not an apparent shopping complex from the outside, but once you enter, floor after floor of small shops and tons and tons of locals (men and women, mostly in the 20-30 year old range) wait you. This time, I had some coverage, since Julie was now with me and could protect me from the sales lady (or myself and my elementary Chinese language skills, that is!). At last, I purchased my first Tibetan-style outfit. And yes, it is made of cotton!

Hands full of packages, we were ready for lunch. We jumped into a cab, and darted over to the Sanlitun area for some pumpkin soup and pumpkin penne at Element Fresh, and some more shopping at Yashow Market (a popular, well advertised "Chinese-style" market). The differences on this side of town are compelling. In the restaurant, almost all westerners. In Yashow Market, almost all westerners. The prices, outrageous until you exhaust yourself bargaining. Decent prices can be negotiated, but not without heroic effort and the "walk away."

In summary, Julie's and my excursion was a total success, mostly because of the company, but party due to one of the hidden treasures of Beijing. Indiana Jones has nothing on us, right Julie!?



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